Kamogelo is a shoeshine man at O.R. Tambo airport. He has a flashing smile, a deft touch with shoe polish and an engaging smile. While he polished and wiped my shoes, he talked of his homesickness for his hometown of Mahikeng and for his girlfriend from a village across the border in Botswana.
He had commented on my limp as I walked towards his shoeshine stand and I told him I have limped visibly almost from the day I started running. And so the conversation quickly moved to the subject of running and to his dream of becoming a serious runner.
“I was always one of the fastest at school,” he proudly boasted,"and while my brothers and sisters walked to school, I ran. All my friends played football, but I just wanted to run and the longer the distance the better I was.”
“ Sounds like me, Kamogelo," I replied
“ But, now it has been some time and I need to start again,” he said with a determined look in his eye.
“How do I start? What should I do”?
Amazingly, I am in the process of writing a book on my own journey in running and about my year-long journey from 'raw' beginner to Comrades runner back in June 1976. So, while Kamogelo toiled away with his wax and polish, I quickly shared a few ideas on how to start running as smoothly and successfully as possible.
Getting started is an exciting adventure, but it is also a perilous one. Get it right and the process becomes one of the greatest gifts a runner can give her- or himself. Get it wrong and it can become a bleak and lonely place, filled with lost motivation and disappointment.
Here’s what I told Kamogelo:
1) To begin with, make it as easy as possible.
I got that right, right from the beginning. My first run was ten minutes around the Wits University rugby fields. I ran at night (for fear someone would see me. I was shy and runners were a rare sight in the 1970s.)
Inadvertently, I had done the right thing. By limiting my run to an easy 10-minute jog on flat rugby fields, I had made the experience vaguely pleasurable. (It was a freezing June winter’s evening.) However, because I had enjoyed it, I had no problem with running again the next evening. And the next…
Too many novices give up after a few sessions, because they make the experience too hard, too long, too fast and generally unpleasant. As soon as they are presented with a half-decent excuse not to train, they skip the run, enthusiasm wanes and the routine is broken.
2) Become a running addict.
It takes 3 months to become addicted. I have found that once a runner has been running for 3 months or longer, running becomes a way-of-life and a positive addiction. It is no longer a chore. The tricky bit is to soldier on through those first 3 months.
I see from my training diary that, after three months, I was already displaying all the symptoms of an addict. I was irritated if I missed a day’s training. I had also started to notice significant improvement and I was starting to enjoy longer runs of up to 20 kilometres. At this point I was unlikely to stop.
It has been 43 years since I took those first tentative running steps. Nothing has changed. I am still an addict.
3) Set a target and a goal. Have a dream.
My very first running step was taken with a sense of purpose and with one goal in mind; the 1977 Comrades marathon. I knew that I would run the 1977 Comrades. Every running step I took was a step towards that starting line outside the Durban City Hall. Whenever my motivation waned, or I returned slightly disappointed by a run that had not been fun, I kept uppermost in my mind my dream to run the Comrades marathon.
Like all newcomers, I had targets and goals along the way - that first 10 km, my first marathon, first ultra - but everything was done with one goal in mind.
4) Increase your training load very slowly and carefully.
Build slowly and gently. Like creating a fine wine, creating fitness takes time. It took me a year to be fit enough for my first Comrades. It took me 5 years to be fit and strong enough to win it.
I advised Kamolgelo to increase the distance he ran very gradually and to allow for lots of pauses and plateaus. It is obvious that increased training results in increased fitness, but it can also lead to injuries and loss of enthusiasm. Sadly, too many runners forget that rest and recovery are equally as important as hard training.
The body gets fitter when training and rest, are used in combination. I like to think of the graph of increased fitness climbing not like the hypotenuse of a right- angled triangle, but rather in a series of steps with plenty of time resting on the plateau of each step before climbing again.
I see that, when I started running, I almost accidentally got things right, because I allowed other commitments to interfere with my training. Without actually being aware of the process I allowed myself to rest and recover. To this day, I am quite skilled at knowing when a rest will be more beneficial to the progress of my fitness rather than a training session.
5) Do not try and improve every time you run.
Try to avoid timing every run and looking for personal best times ( p.b.'s) every time you run. It is impossible to get faster and faster every time you run, so it is better to relax and try to enjoy your running rather than turning every run into a competition against yourself.
I made the mistake of timing every run when I first started training. I was elated when I ran a new p.b. time, but I was twice as crushed when I didn’t.
Poor results can be caused by many factors such as poor sleep, stress, over-training and nutrition. The important thing is to run on a regular basis and not to look for improvement every time you run. The best approach to measuring fitness is only to time runs every now and then to monitor progress.
6) You can’t do it all on your own.
Run with companions. Shared discipline is a lot easier than individual discipline.
When I first started running, I had a very lonely initial 6 months. I spent many hours alone and concerned about whether I was progressing correctly. I experienced many tough moments when I had to push myself to train.
As soon as I had companions I ran better, became fitter, and felt happier. For that reason, I believe it is essential to find running companions as soon as possible and, if possible, to join a running club.
7) Dress appropriately.
Wear light clothing. Less is more when it comes to running.
With a laugh I told Kagolmelo that I can always spot beginners. They are the ones bundled up in tracksuits, scarves, gloves and beanies on a day when a veteran would wear a T-shirt and shorts.
8) Keep a diary or a logbook.
I kept a running diary from day one. When I look at my first diary entry back in June 1976 it fills me with nostalgia,
10-minute run around Wits rugby field. Tired at then. Pushed last lap. Coughed a bit, wheezed a bit.
Not really an auspicious start, but it was a start, and my running diary was going to give me the best reference book I have ever known. In later years, it would guide me, motivate me and remind me.
As I rose from my seat with shoes gleaming so brightly I could almost see my reflection in them, I wished Kamogelo luck and left him with a generous tip.
I hope he does start running again and I hope he remembers just one or two of my tips.
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